Supporters of Catholic education should not be passive in the face of threats to an authentic, faithful and confident religious ethos in Irish schooling writes Dr Tom Finegan
The term ‘religion’ is mentioned only once in the 139 page Programme for Government (PfG) adopted by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party. On the occasion it is mentioned it is referenced, “all religions and none”. So religion is only worth mentioning in the PfG in direct and neutral association with the absence of religion. Hardly a promising sign for the right of Christian parents to a religious education for their children.
Four items in the draft PfG are of particular interest to Christian schooling and authentic denominational religious education:
- The divestment of more Catholic primary schools to give greater choice of schools for secular parents;
- Introducing a liberal-secular relationships and sexuality education programme to all primary and post-primary schools;
- Introducing a liberal-secular religious and ethics education to all primary schools, and
- Establishing a Citizens’ Assembly on the future of education at primary and second level.
Item (I) is welcome and very important. Non-Christian parents have the same basic human right to choice of schools as Christian parents. Genuine pluralism requires genuine diversity of choice of school ethos. Actioning this item needs the active involvement of Catholic bodies and persons, of course, and so the wider Church has a duty to take the divestment process very seriously.
The merits of the PfG as regards religion in education end at item (I). Absurdly, under the heading of “plurality and choice in education”, the PfG pushes items (II) and (III). According to the PfG “pluralism” and educational “choice” require turning all Catholic schools into secular, agnostic schools. Item (II) involves introducing a liberal-secular relationships and sexuality education programme into all primary and post-primary schools, while item (III) involves introducing a liberal-secular religious and ethics education into all primary schools.
The effect of both proposals would be to turn Christian schools into secular schools when it comes to sex and relationships education and when it comes to an important part of religious education. This is not genuine pluralism: it is a coercive push towards secular monism. It goes a long way to destroying genuine choice of schools in terms of ethos, and so it seriously harms the interests of religious parents in having a choice of Christian schooling for their children.
Take item (II), sex and relationships education. Previous State-sponsored documentation has already indicated that the State’s favoured approach to sex and relationships education is liberal-secular. The PfG very strongly implies that this will be true for the incoming Government: its guiding ethic will be consent and choice. Marriage, as the union of one man and one woman, will not figure as a good worth pursuing. Chastity will be ignored, at best. Christian sex ethics on sensitive topics will be rejected. ‘Respect’ for persons will be reducible to consent, as if persons cannot consent to be sexually disrespected. Virtue in sexuality will be omitted. Sex ethics will be divorced from God, love, moral goodness, fidelity, permanency, integrity, and the seismic incarnational significance of procreation.
Nothing in the proposed liberal-secular programmes will affirm credible, principled opposition to pornography, sexting, prostitution, casual/anonymous sex, abortion, polyamory, or adultery.
Now turn to item (III), the proposal to introduce liberal-secular religious and ethics education into all primary schools. This too amounts to forcing Catholic schools to adopt a secular approach to ethos-relevant education. Here the PfG is pushing a re-hash of a proposal rejected via consultation only a few years ago: a programme titled, “Education about Religious Beliefs and Ethics” (ERBE). Critics of the ERBE programme correctly argued that it assumed all religions and philosophies to be equally true, and thus encouraged religious relativism. Of course, the idea that all religions are equally true is directly contrary to Church teaching and the explicit teaching of Christ.
Supporters of the ERBE programme argued that its introduction was important for promoting religious tolerance. But Catholic schools do not promote intolerance – far from it. More fundamentally, one needn’t assume that all religions are “equally true” in order to accept the principle of religious tolerance and to respect freedom of religion. Vatican II insists that Catholicism is the only fully true faith and, at the same time, that all other religions should benefit from the right to religious freedom. The fact is that the liberal-secular understanding of “religious tolerance” is intolerant of Catholic schools being confident about the truth of the Catholic faith. It is not genuine tolerance.
Supporters of Catholic and wider Christian education should not be passive in the face of these threats to an authentic, faithful and confident religious ethos in Irish schooling. Nor should supporters despair that these proposals will inevitably materialise. Our Constitution, which is the basic law of the State, is emphatically supportive of both denominational schooling and the rights of all parents to freedom of school choice. Legislation (statutory law) enacted by the Oireachtas must not be incompatible with the Constitution. This is why the current Education Act is so supportive of denominational ethos. If the incoming Government was to pursue items (II) and (III) via legislation it would run into genuine constitutional difficulties.
Which is why item (IV), the proposal to establish a Citizens’ Assembly on the future of education at primary and second level, is both intriguing and deeply worrying. Recourse to a Citizens’ Assembly is often government’s way of publicly justifying constitutional referenda it deems desirable. Stakeholders in, and supports of, Christian schooling need to be acutely aware of this. There is a real possibility that the Government will use a Citizens’ Assembly as a means to a referendum to violate Christian parents’ right to an authentically Christian education for their own children. This would be in violation of Article 26(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Unfortunately, recent precedent exists for the removal of a human right from the Constitution.
I believe in the right of non-religious parents to educate their children according to the truth as they judge it. And I will defend the same right for my wife and I and all other religious parents. Our moral, religious, and parental integrity depends on being able to pass on the Christian faith to our children. If denied our right by a liberal-secular state we will be forced to exit the public schooling system and incur the massive costs of either giving up work (and other) opportunities in order to home-school, or funding private schooling. This would be grossly unfair to taxpayers who are trying to raise the next generation in already challenging socio-economic circumstances. It would amount to unjust discrimination against Christian (and other religious) parents. And it would radically compromise the handing on (‘tradition’) of the Christian faith.
Secularists have succeeded in creating an agnostic public space where God is absent, where there is no meaning outside the finite self (and thus no ultimate meaning at all), and where moral wrongs are enshrined in the Constitution. If that is their best vision for their own children, they should be free to educate them accordingly. But they have no right to force their agnosticism, nihilism, and relativistic morality on Christian families.
Now is the time for the impassioned defence of both faith-based education and the right to faith-based education. There is a real need for coordinated courage among parents, Catholic education stakeholders and leaders, and Bishops to defend the rights of Catholic parents to an authentic Catholic education for their children.
Dr Tom Finegan is a lecturer in theology at the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Mary Immaculate College.